Runaway trolley problem


I dont think anyone here really believes this.
Taking this blinkered logic to its full conclusion an accidental bystander suddenly becomes responsible for the death of at least 1 person simply by being there.
But if we take the blinkers off we realise that if that is the case then moral freedom does not actually exist re at least 1 person dying so culpability cannot exist in at least one of the decisions.
Whether a fully coherent ontological moral system exists to explain that decision is another matter.


I thought I was fairly specific in saying that if one does not act to save a life “where you could easily do so” one is responsible. That would preclude the accidental bystander situation.

Yes, and I’m glad someone recognizes this. Clearly we cannot be in a position where both choices available to us are immoral; one choice must be justifiable over the other, so if it is immoral to act in such a way (throw the switch) that one person dies, it is surely immoral to act is such a way (sit still) that five people die. Given that “culpability cannot exist in at least one of the decisions” it seems to me that culpability does not exist in the choice that leads to the least harm.


If the death caused by switching the trolley is not murder, and clearly the death is not directly intended, then can the object of the act be considered intrinsically evil? But if the object of an act is not evil then the morality of the act depends on the intent, and since the intent in this case - saving the five - is good, how can the act of throwing the switch be considered evil?


Perhaps I am mistaken but I dont think I have seen this expression predicated, at least Magisterially, to the object font of a moral act in isolation from a direct intention.

I believe the phrase is simply shorthand for saying, “Can this object ever be directly intended well.”

Does it also apply equally to indirect intentions? Probably not. Contracepting is considered intrinsically evil married or not from my understanding. Yet it seems there may be unusual but acceptable occassions where indirect contraceptive intent is acceptable. Direct contraceptive intent is considered intrinsically evil.

Then we also have to be careful in discussions of intrinsically evil that we are actually talking of true, uncontaminated moral objects in the first place.
“Murder” is intrinsically evil … but this isnt really a nascent moral object. The very definition seems to imply direct intent of an unjust killing…so the IE predication appears but a tautology that has no useful analytical purpose.

Indirect killings are obviousle acceptable in some situations.

Direct killings? Well, not all direct killings are murder. Thats a confused area traditionally in my opinion, but that is another topic…as I know you are aware!


The moral act isnt evil.
And the act isnt the throwing of the switch.
The good moral act is saving five peoply by throwing the switch.

The bad secondary act is killing one person by throwing the switch. But it isnt a true moral act because praeter intentions only give rise to praeter bad acts and only have praeter objects which are only pseudo objects. The details of the chosen disordered “object” in fact are subsumed into the circumstances/consequences font of the whole composite good act.


The negative effect cannot be a moral object though. The act must not be ordered to the death of the innocent, though it may be the cause.

The act of bombing did not target those civilians - it was an act targeting the factory. The perversity of the trolley is that disturbing the in progress targeting requires an act ordered to the death of an innocent. [I am looking for a rationale to debunk this interpretation, but so far, have not heard one.]


Classifying as direct or indirect is the issue.

The intention is only to save. I am not aware of any right to apply proportionality when there is an evil moral object (not just consequence) present. Can you reference a source for this idea.


This is what I’d like a reference to for further investigation.

Ps. You decided to make a call on the trolley after dipping out earlier?


The CCC (2268) does seem to identify murder as intentional killing. When coupled with CCC 2261 it seems that “murder” can be defined as the intentional killing of the innocent.

The trolley situation reasonably elicits a split intention. The proportionality criterion establishes which is objectively the primary intention, saving the 5.

Many feel that in numerous PODE scenarios it is a continuing “denial” to pretend that some conscious and foreseen decisions in that scenario are in not in fact at some real and conscious level an intended choosing of an evil objective without which choosing the greater good cannot be realistically effected.
Throwing the railway switch is but one example.

It seems perfectly valid to say that the choice is a genuine choice - though clearly unfreedom is also operating in that choice. Thus with the railway scenario throwing or not throwing the switch is a decision that at least one person is chosen to die regardless. That is unfreedom. That is what makes this decision a true decision. But, in accordance with the varied degrees of intention and choice (with a variety of Latin words which encapsulate the degree of true intention/decision making involved) available to Scholastics in their understanding of human-nature (Aquinas) … an indirect decision/intent/choice called a “praeter intention” is entirely reasonable to objectively postulate.

English vocab and modern english minds seem to have such a poverty of vocab and understanding of a philosophy of decision-making that only a binary view seems possible - either a total single fully free and aware decision or a drugged zombie decision. That, to me, is a major flaw in all these sorts of endless debates.


I don’t have a ready text to hand sorry.
Any in depth discussion I have read on the three fonts and indirect intention acknowledges this. Ron Conte was the last person I recall making this commonplace observation somewhere.

Such specific and in depth discussion of this is hard to find.
But really it just logically flows if one is to make sense of the three fonts and the presence of an indirect intent surely. If we reject this then a single moral act cannot be explained by current moral theology systems. And surely we hold that the act of throwing the switch to save five lives is a single moral act - just like self-defence. Yet there seem to be secondary intents and choices involved as well all the same.


Ron Conte sees 2 moral objects, 1 good, 1 bad, in the Trolley problem and distinguished the trolley scenario from the medical treatment harming baby scenario.


The intention to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was to save lives. It was still immoral.


In a 2010 letter to President Obama, Cardinal George, then USCCB President, wrote that the use of the atomic bomb as a weapon of war is rejected in Church teaching based on just war norms.
The use of nuclear weapons can “never be morally justified”, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has said in a statement ahead of Parliament’s vote on whether to renew Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. July 2016.
2314 “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes.


His analysis seems to rise of fall on the following assertion:

Consequences and intention do not enter into the decision, since:

  1. pulling the lever is intrinsically evil
  2. and refraining from pulling it is not.

Both those judgements do not seem clear cut to me and are likely prudential.

Like I say, if he holds to two primary moral objects operating at the same time (I am not sure this is true) then no room is left for indirect intent. If the intrinsically evil card is being played for what I am suggesting could be an indirect evil object then obviously Ron does not accept this intent could be indirect.

As I say, I think this point is debatable. I think one can consciously,at some point, decide one must kill in some self defence cases. Its not a fully free decision or intent, but it is conscious and knowing but not strong enough to be called the primary intent of the self-defence scenario. I don’t prima facie see why that
couldn’t play out in the trolley case too.

It would be good for us, and for Ron, if seeing the discussion on CAF he enter into it as he was once want to do rather than free-range here for source material for his blog or article as many do nowadays. Its an old University professor strategy - set your students an assignment that you want to write a book or journal article on and get free research and original ideas.

Who knows, maybe he is one of the participants here :open_mouth:.


When quoting its good to identify the source - it will help newbies to CAF.
Presumably 2314 is not like 2010 (a year) :grinning: - and is a CCC reference rather than a reference to some text from Cardinal George himself?

So this is a moral principle. I agree with it.
But you went further below, you stated a specific concrete application:

it is wrong to drop hydrogen bombs on cities.

The intention to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was to save lives. It was still immoral.

You may be right and I probably agree with you but the Magisterium doesn’t call out or teach that specific historical instances are such examples. Some bishops or Cardinals in the countries concerned may personally say so to the appropriate persons at the appropriate times of course.

There may be cases when it is just and does not offend the above principle.
That is what many Americans argue re Hiroshima…their argument is not simply about saving many more lives. Its more complex than that.


I’ll turn my head the other way and ignore the whole situation. Then it’s only a sin of omission :open_mouth:


Like crossing the street so as not to be morally compromised by a Samaritan in the gutter :rofl:.


? I’m not disagreeing with that.


I think that is exactly what he is saying (and what I am saying when speaking on that side of the fence :grin: ).

And I believe the “ordering” of the act - the act itself being equally ordered to saving as to killing - is the reason.

Self defense has a different factor thrown in - the aggressor is not innocent. We cannot grab an innocent and drag him into the trajectory of an approaching bullet to save ourselves (or another 1 or more).


In the concrete, all human acts are either morally good or evil.

In the concrete, all moral objects of all acts are either good or evil.

Only in the abstract can one call the moral object of a human act neutral. In the abstract, we strip away from the act aspects which determine its moral object.

The moral object of an act is the apparent good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. A human act is inadequately defined (or abstracted) when its moral object cannot be discerned. Until the human act is so described as to disclose the object of the will, the act is inadequately defined. The moral object of a properly defined human act is independent of the actor or their intentions (the “intention” font).

Therefore, the act “throwing the switch” is an inadequate description of a human act.

However, “throwing a switch that saves one innocent human life and takes four innocent lives” or 'partially throwing a switch that derails a train to save four human lives" or “not throwing a switch to avoid killing one innocent life” are all human acts which disclose the moral object.

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